Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Jeff Culhane is either taking on the most desirable radio broadcasting job in the country or one of the least desirable. On the one hand, he’s getting the opportunity to broadcast big-time college football for the five-time champion Bison. But, on the other side of the coin, he’s replacing one of the most beloved characters around NDSU Athletics in Scott Miller. Culhane is approaching the former as a great opportunity for his career, but at the same time, acknowledges the latter by knowing there has been a specific level of excellence Miller set as the “Voice of the Bison.”
Culhane will begin his journey in Fargo on August 1 when “The Bison” 1660 AM launches on airwaves throughout Fargo. He’ll host a two-hour daily show with Director of Sales and Broadcasting Jeremy Jorgenson called The Insiders. He’s also the same man you will hear describing Bison football games on the radio, in your car, combine or at home every Saturday.
(This interview took place on July 11 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Bison Illustrated: What did you do in college at Dakota Wesleyan?
Jeff Culhane: I played four years of college football, one year of college baseball. I started out as a quarterback and then I moved over to defense and played free safety, outside linebacker, and my one year of baseball–I was on the team, but didn’t really play–I was a pitcher. My family has always been around radio. When I was a kid, my dad was actually the analyst for high school boy’s basketball games in Mitchell (S.D.). I was tagging along with him and in a radio booth from age 5. It got me started. My uncle has been in broadcasting his entire career. He was always a guy on the side that was on the air, and I’d hear him, and as I got older and got more interested in being a part of the business, he was a guy that I would talk to and bounce ideas off of, and he’d bounce ideas off of me. I started in radio at age 14 in Mitchell.
Wait, 14? What were you doing for them at that age?
I was doing weekend radio shifts at an oldie station in town and basically just doing news, weather and sports, cueing up oldie songs. I started in sports broadcasting when I was 18 and was asked to do what my dad did– be the color analyst for the Mitchell High School boy’s basketball. A year out of high school where I played high school basketball. It was a blast. I got more involved in play-by-play and continued to do that. I called a bunch of different sports.
I don’t have a broadcasting degree. I have a business degree with a management and marketing emphasis and minor in computers. I didn’t go to Syracuse or Northwestern or Brown. I didn’t go to any of those places. I think it was my junior year in college when I started to figure out what was going to happen after school and that’s when I hooked up with my uncle and ended up working with him with the University of South Dakota and started calling games in Yankton and Vermillion.
So in the end, it was never really a question whether you would or wouldn’t get into radio broadcasting?
The big thing that I was trying to figure out was if I needed to go to Syracuse or Northwestern and do grad school and get a graduate degree. I asked all the radio guys at South Dakota, and they all told me the same thing, “You already have what those guys don’t have, on-air experience.” So I started working and grinding away, full-time sales, sports talk shows and play-by-play, everything that you would learn and do at a radio station, I did with my first job out of college.
What lessons have you learned during your unorthodox journey that younger broadcasters should know?
If you really have a passion for sports and you want to be a guy that’s on the air, it’s just a matter of doing it, and continuing to do it and getting reps, and putting yourself out there a little bit. Do some things you’re not as comfortable doing just to gain some experience and learn about all the phases of business. At the end of the day, you can only be yourself. And I think that’s one thing that a lot of young announcers are maybe dealing with. You’re trying to find who you are as an announcer, and sometimes people do a little too much, and maybe aren’t being who they are, and you can tell when a guy is trying to do a little too much when you listen to them.
Coming to NDSU
Why is NDSU the right job for you right now?
My goal has always been to be a play-by-play guy at a school, and call the university’s football and men’s basketball teams. At West Virginia, I was hosting our pre and postgame shows for football and then play- by-play for women’s basketball and baseball primarily. I filled in for the spring football game in 2014. Called men’s basketball games out there if we had a (scheduling) conflict with football. So for me, it’s always been about making that jump and getting that opportunity, and when I found out the NDSU job opened, it was immediately such an enticing opportunity because of not only what has happened the last five years here, but I grew up in Mitchell, S.D., so North Dakota State was always–as far as a Division II and the NCC they were always the benchmark, 13 national championships, eight of them in Division II. The brand was already developed and it’s taken off to another level. I get that question a lot where people are like, “You were at Nebraska, West Virginia, why this place? What’s the thought process behind North Dakota State?” I think the answer is that North Dakota State is a national brand, even though it’s got the FCS moniker and a mid-major basketball program in the Summit League, from a broadcaster’s perspective, what we have setup, with the football network and with what Jeremy Jorgenson and the university have put together, it’s better than some of the Power 5 schools.
How did the hiring process go down?
I found out about it in mid-to-late March. The process was a quick one. Again, Jeremy Jorgenson, the university, it was really well put together, very transparent, very honest. I believe when I found out about it, the deadline was the end of April, for applications on the form, and by the end of April, it was down to either the final five or the final two finalists. They were moving through the process well. From that standpoint, it was great, because there was very little waiting around, wondering what’s going on.
You were also brought in to re-brand 1660 AM. Have you ever helped launch a station like this?
Actually, in South Dakota, we developed a radio network for the University of South Dakota back in 2006. I think we put together five, six stations around the state and got them on board with USD and Coyote football in the fall. We sold it, produced it, put it together, but as far as the actual launching of a radio station, no, this is a new endeavor.
Why tune into 1660 AM?
I think the pitch is, if you’re a Bison fan or a sports talk fan who’s been looking for a little bit more; that’s been looking for that local feel and connection to talk Bison sports and talk Bison athletics on a day-by-day basis, we’ve got that for you and we’re going to produce and provide some new and exciting programming for people. We’re going to do some out-of-the-box things that fans will enjoy. It’s going to center on, just like when I was at Nebraska with Sports Nightly talking Husker football a lot, it’s going to be very similar to that where it’s Bison football, it’s Bison men’s basketball. It’ll branch out and we’ll do different things with some of the Olympic sports as well. For the first time, we’re going to put NDSU baseball on in the spring, so that’s going to happen, softball is a huge deal. Some different things in the fall, following volleyball, soccer, wrestling, so it’s a little bit more of what I think is being done now. There’s more options, a couple of daily talk shows where we’ll focus on NDSU but we’ll talk everything. It won’t just be NDSU all the time. It’ll be a sports talk show where we talk about Bison football in August, fall reports, looking around the Missouri Valley, talking NFL, talking Vikings, if the Twins somehow figure it out here in the second half. We could talk Twins in the stretch run.
What do you think the ratio will be of Bison to other sports related topics?
I think everybody knows our bread will be buttered with NDSU football in the fall and almost all year round. Whether we’re talking about the season, we move and basketball starts, talk hoops, then there’s recruiting and all the way to signing day into spring ball, and then you move into summer time and it’s everything we can find. I think the term I have heard from people within the athletic department, and I would agree with it completely. I think North Dakota State looks at itself like a mini Nebraska in some respects, with the success, the fan base following, the passion and what has really developed over the last 10 years or so. I think it’s going to be very similar to some of that stuff that I have done and been a part of before with Nebraska and the Cornhuskers and feeding that hunger I would say for Bison fans out there with what we’re going to bring them.
I’m sure just about everyone you’ve met has brought up Scott Miller in one-way or another to you. How’s the fan reception been?
People have been great. The people I’ve talked to have been really great. I was at a get together over at Choice Financial a couple of weeks ago. Erv Inniger was there, so I talked to Erv and I met him. We talked to some other people. Everyone was great, talking about Scott and replacing him, and doing whatever we need to do to continue on with his excellence, how he set the standard here. When I was hired, it was sort of a bittersweet moment for a lot of people because the sadness of not having Scottie around anymore, but also, in a way, excited for the future of it, and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to continue to try and provide them the excellence he did with the headset on.
How do you properly follow in the footsteps of a legend like Scott Miller?
The only thing I can do is to be me and do what I’ve always done with ball games and how I’ve called games in the past and provide listeners and fans with my style. Scott’s phrase, of course, is “My, oh, my,” I think that certainly needs to stay with him. There could be a time somewhere, potentially, where you throw that out there in honor of him. But I think that’s something that is what people attach with Scottie. That’s his to keep, I believe.
When do you start the process of familiarizing yourself with a new program you’ll be covering?
It’s already begun. I’ve already been watching film from last season. Over the Fourth of July, I was in the office watching the national championship game from a year ago. I watched the Youngstown State game from last season, South Dakota State, the Richmond game, I watched the Northern Iowa playoff game from last year. I’ve already begun calling games in my head with this football team so it’s all of that the learning, the transitioning has already begun. When I was in West Virginia, that transition was very unique and challenging due to the rights agreement that went down there with the old network to IMG. I didn’t arrive in Morgantown until the Monday of game week in 2013. I was on the air Saturday. So I’m pretty familiar with the transition side and having to get ready and prepared. Thankfully, I have a few more days this time around to get ready for August 27.
So you don’t feel pressured to be ready with your 1980s Bison football stats?
Not yet (laughs). I think for me, what I do early on will probably be more so about what’s happening with the action on the field and it’s going to be great working with Phil Hansen and Jeremy Jorgenson, and I’ll certainly lean on those guys for some of that other stuff, but I will obviously make myself extremely aware of the ins and outs of the program and all those things to be ready to discuss that stuff, and on a daily basis with a talk show as well with people.
Who is jumping off the film for you on both sides of the ball?
First of all, offensively, I don’t know if people understand what Easton Stick accomplished last season, like, actually get what he did because the only other place that that’s happened that I can remember in years past is at Ohio State a couple years ago when Braxton Miller went down. J.T. Barrett came in and was great and then broke his ankle, and then Cardale Jones comes in and doesn’t miss a beat. Oklahoma after Sam Bradford won the Heisman in 2008, he got hurt in the BYU game and Landry Jones, who ended up playing in the NFL, was the backup and they were a 7-5 team who had an awful season. The number two player in the draft gets hurt in the middle of the season (Carson Wentz), and you’re 4-2 and you’re all of a sudden thinking, “Oh my god, this is a situation we’ve never been in.” And for what he did, as a redshirt freshman to come in and just be poised and handle it the way he did was impressive. The defense, of course, was fantastic and the coaching staff is great, to put him in situations to be successful, I don’t think people fully realize (what he did). I think people close to it do, I think Bison Nation does. I think people around the Missouri Valley do, but to me, that was extremely impressive to watch.
You return so much in the backfield with King Frazier who was at Nebraska for a couple of years, and Bruce Anderson is a dynamic player. His kickoff return for a score against Northern Iowa in the third quarter was an amazing play. It was SportsCenter Top 10 like. He’s phenomenal. Lance Dunn is kind of that nice change of pace guy.
I really like RJ Urzendowski because I think he’s at 80 catches for 11 touchdowns in his career. He’s one of those guys who just knows how to get open, catches everything and understands how to play that position. Being teammates with Easton as well in high school helps a lot with what they’re going to have going forward.
(NDSU is) going to miss Joe Haeg, having him at left tackle, and they’re going to rely on some guys that don’t’ have as much experience early on to get in there and play.
Defensively, you start and stop with the linebacking corp. Nick DeLuca has a great chance to play on Sunday. MJ Stumpf he’s all over the field making plays. Hits hard. The linebacking corp coupled with the returners up front with (Brad) Ambrosius, and Tanguay are going to free those guys up a lot to run around and make tackles, and cause havoc and make plays. They’re preseason number one for a reason, still got a lot of players coming back with plenty of experience. Whenever you have a quarterback who is perfect and has three years left on the docket, it’s exciting the future for this team.
Okay, you sound like you know what you’re talking about. You passed.
I’m not 110 percent there, but I certainly will be come August 1.
Worst on-air experience?
It was my first job, and I was at the University of South Dakota, at media day, and I forgot the guy’s name who I was talking to because I was so new to it and I didn’t know the guys yet. I was doing the interview, and he was an offensive lineman at USD. His name was Nick Bleak, and I called him Travis. I said, “Travis, thanks for your time.” He looked at me and goes, “My name is Nick.”
How long does it take you to prep for a game?
I think what it’s going to be for me is that week-by-week will be interesting from the standpoint of, Sunday, you’ll probably get away from it, watch the Vikings, take a day off with the family. Monday, you’re right back into it. I think the talk show will help in that regard because we talk about it every day.
A fist pound is always my thing. I always give my guys a fist pound, guys in the back of the studio fist pounds and say, “Let’s have some fun.”
People you look up to in the industry?
Sean (McDonough) is one of those guys. Kevin Harlan is another guy that I think is just fantastic. Greg Sharp at Nebraska is a friend but also, he’s so good at doing all the little things correct and all his big play calls give you goose bumps.
Most memorable call?
Without a doubt, it’s the UCONN-Cincinnati game this last March. Kevin Johnson from Cincinnati hit a three with 0.8 seconds to play, and the ball got knocked away momentarily so there was a brief period of time Cincinnati was celebrating, they thought the game was over, and going back to watching the film now, Jalen Adams positioned himself because he knew he had to give it a heave. He gave himself a chance because he got his shoulders set ahead of time and got a great pass on the inbound where he could catch, one, two and crank and yep.